After being in the political wilderness for almost 20 years, firebrand One Nation leader Pauline Hanson is trying to make a comeback in the upcoming federal elections on July 2. While Australia has transformed itself into one of the most multicultural places on earth through these years, Hanson has changed little. Eyeing a senate seat, she is still wooing voters by railing against Muslims, in particular, and East Asians in general   

MELBOURNE–Erin Chew well remembers anti-immigration politician Pauline Hanson’s explosive arrival on Australia’s political stage in the mid-1990s. The only time she ever skipped school was to attend a protest against Hanson’s platform, articulated mostly famously in her maiden speech to parliament that warned of the country being “swamped by Asians.”

Pauline Hanson
Pauline Hanson

“I knew that that wasn’t right,” said Chew, who comes from a Malaysian-Chinese immigrant family, of Hanson’s campaign against Asian immigration, multiculturalism and special benefits for Aboriginals.

Benefitting from the initial endorsement of the center-right Liberal Party before it revoked her ticket at the eleventh hour, Hanson entered the House of Representatives in 1996 as an independent, later forming the One Nation party. Her star was short-lived, however, and she lost every state and federal election she subsequently contested.

But after being in the political wilderness for almost two decades, the firebrand politician from Brisbane looks to be on the verge of a return to the mainstream in the upcoming federal elections.

In part because of a rare full dissolution of the upper house that lowers the election quota, Hanson is considered a strong contender for a Senate seat in her native state of Queensland in the parliamentary vote on July 2. If elected, she would be propelled back to prominence on the political stage for the next six years, double her short tenure in the lower house.

To many Asian-Australians and immigrants, it’s a troubling jolt back to a dark period.

“It’s a bit sad in a way, but not surprising that she’s coming back because I don’t think the basic politics of what happened in the late 1990s — when Hanson first hit the stage — have really changed that much,” said Peter Boyle, who immigrated from Malaysia in 1971 when white immigration was still favored as official policy.

Boyle, who is also running for a Senate seat in New South Wales with the Socialist Alliance, said Australian politicians often used the fear of migrants and the hot button issue of refugees for political ends.

“They use the fear of migrants to displace concerns about economic pressure that ordinary people feel,” he said.

Chew, who heads the Asian Australian Alliance, said that Hanson’s resurgence tracked an increasingly confident attitude among far-right and nationalist groups in Australia.

“What I find interesting is that…even, say, three to four years ago, a lot of these white supremacist, anti-Islam or anti-Asian-type groups were actually not too keen or not too enthusiastic to coming out more (in) public…and now they are,” she said.

This time around, Hanson has directed much of her fire at Muslims in particular. After the Orlando massacre by a gunman who pledged allegiance to Islamic State, Hanson called for a ban on Muslims in Australia, comparing them to pit bulls that are restricted from entering the country. A scattering of other far-right parties contesting the election have similarly made the supposed threat of Islam their signature issue.

Anxieties around East Asians, however, have not gone away. Hanson recently railed against Asians pricing Australians out of the property market in a radio interview, latching onto a major talking point in a country with some of the most expensive houses in the world. While a 2014 parliamentary committee concluded that foreign investment in the property market lowered prices, many Australians have blamed Chinese buying in particular for driving up costs.

“There is a lot tension in auctions for houses and units in the big cities between what’s perceived to be Chinese overseas buyers and local first-home owners,” said Boyle. “And I’ve heard it from an Asian real estate agent that they’ve had to defuse physical confrontations at the end of an auction for a house or a unit.”

Despite incendiary remarks such as saying she would never sell her house to a Muslim, Hanson has repeatedly denied accusations of racism. A request for comment from her One Nation party went unanswered.

Boyle, who has witnessed Australia’s transformation from an almost exclusively white nation to one of the most multicultural places on earth, said the resurfacing of old resentments could be because prejudices are being increasingly challenged in today’s multicultural Australia.

“Certainly, anti-Asian racism is under pressure in Australia. One of the things that makes it easier for racists to believe the superiority of one race over another is if it is sort of vaguely reinforced in the real positions in society,” he said. “So if all the Asians are looking…uneducated and poor and down in the dirt, then it’s easy to stereotype them. But this is not the case anymore, either in Australia or the world as a whole. So it’s embattled, I think.”

John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia.

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